WTA Finals in Saudi Arabia can help usher bright new era for Arab female tennis

Significant steps are already being made to improve the tennis structure in the Kingdom - and the potential arrival of the WTA Finals would have a major impact now and into the future

Ons Jabeur, the most successful Arab tennis player in history and one of the biggest stars in world sport, has thrown her support behind Saudi Arabia hosting the WTA Finals. AP
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Saudi Arabia has taken its first steps towards investing in international tennis, announcing it will be hosting the next five editions of the Next Gen ATP Finals in Jeddah while submitting a bid to stage the WTA Finals.

Board meetings have been taking place this week in New York, on the sidelines of the US Open, where leaders of the women’s tour are reportedly trying to decide whether to take their flagship season-ending championships to Riyadh, or instead accept a competing bid from Prague or other host cities.

From an Arab perspective, bringing professional tennis, especially women’s tennis, to Saudi Arabia can have a huge impact, not just within the Kingdom, but on the Mena region as a whole.

Several countries across the Arab world, particularly in North Africa, are passionate about tennis and have high participation numbers but lack the resources to cater to that interest, nurture young talent, or host big events.

Meanwhile, Arab countries that have the resources, like Saudi Arabia, have historically not shown much interest in the sport. But that is changing and it can create a ripple effect across the region.

Arij Mutabagani, the president of the Saudi Arabian Tennis Federation, has spoken about the Kingdom’s plans to boost the sport from the grassroots level, while also hosting more junior ITF events for boys and girls.

She says a community tennis programme held across three cities attracted 8,000 kids between the ages of eight and 14 in its first four weeks. The federation collaborated with the Ministry of Education to hold tennis workshops in 90 schools across Riyadh, Jeddah and the Eastern Province for PE teachers and students. Workshops are also being held for tennis parents, with help from the ITF, and officiating courses are being organised for local tennis umpires.

“It’s a start. What we’re trying to do at the federation is to grow tennis from the grassroots level all the way to the high-performance level,” Mutabagani told The National in an interview at Wimbledon earlier this summer.

“There are different stakeholders in tennis, it’s not just the players. There is the player, the parents, the coach, the fitness coach, the referees, the officials. So while we’re doing this, we’re trying to educate them as well.”

The ITF junior tournament held last November in Jeddah proved to be a special milestone as it included girls for the first time and Mutabagani says two more ITF junior events will be staged in Riyadh.

Having more junior tournaments held in the region would be invaluable for young Arab players who often need their parents to spend huge amounts of money to fly them to Europe for events, while also dealing with the hassle of entry visas.

The existing ITFs taking place in Gulf countries have been a big hit with players. A J60 event in Doha earlier this year featured 11 Arabs in the draw, from Kuwait, Qatar, Egypt and Saudi, while a J30 in Kuwait had 13, from Kuwait, Iraq, Saudi, Tunisia and Egypt.

Now that Saudi is entering the chat, more playing opportunities will open up for young talent across the region.

What we’re trying to do at the federation is to grow tennis from the grassroots level all the way to the high-performance level
Arij Mutabagani, president of the Saudi Arabian Tennis Federation

Along with their plans for the juniors, Mutabagani says they are looking at bringing men’s and women’s Challenger events to the Kingdom by next year.

There is presently a limited number of Challengers taking place in the Mena region. Earlier this season, Jordanian teenager Abdullah Shelbayh stormed to the final of the Manama Challenger in Bahrain after receiving a wildcard into the tournament. These are things we can see happen more often if more tennis events were held in the region, and if these events commit to affording opportunities to Arab players.

Mutabagani says the Next Gen ATP Finals fit perfectly with what they are trying to achieve in targeting the younger generation and boosting the level of interest in tennis from the ground up.

“We are trying to structure it in a way that makes sense. We cannot bring everything all at once. We have to do it gradually, in a smart way, to help develop tennis in the region,” she said.

“Because tennis is still relatively a new sport here, it’s not like football that has been there and is very popular. So we have to slowly try to educate people that there is this sport. So we want to do it the right way.

“We thought if we bring the Next Gen, it could be an incentive for the younger population, because our population in Saudi Arabia, 75 or 70 per cent are under the age of 35, so it’s a very young population. So it’s a good target to try to introduce these different sports so they can see it’s not just about football.

“And also it’s a chance to engage with fans, spectators, not just players. There are a lot of people who want to see something different, want to see something new.”

Mutabagani says a women’s Next Gen event could potentially be introduced next year, and that getting more Saudi Arabian girls involved in tennis is a top priority. Currently Yara Alhogbani is the Kingdom’s best female player and she will be participating in this month’s Asian Games in China.

Last February, a girls’ team represented Saudi Arabia for the first time in the Junior Billie Jean King Cup in Sri Lanka.

“For me, girls are extremely important. It’s important for them to start participating in events outside Saudi Arabia, at any level,” said Mutabagani.

“In October we’re sending a women’s team for the first time to the Billie Jean King Cup; just like we did with the Junior Billie Jean King Cup, we have to start somewhere and show there is a presence.

“Step by step, we’ll develop that. I really feel the girls were not given their fair share and if we can achieve something for the girls and make them feel like they can take part, this for me is a goal.”

There is hesitation within the women’s tour – and the global tennis community – about the possibility of staging the WTA Finals in Saudi Arabia. But the reality is, there is no way that bringing the highest level of women’s tennis to the Kingdom will not have a positive impact within the country, and the region.

As Tunisian top-five star Ons Jabeur recently said in an interview with Glamour magazine: “These countries are trying to change. So many women are waiting for these opportunities.”

It might not be easy for someone who comes from a country where tennis, and sport in general, is easily accessible and tournaments are aplenty to fully comprehend what it would mean for a young girl to be exposed to elite women athletes for the first time, let alone receive a wildcard to compete in a big international event on home soil.

If the WTA Finals go to Saudi Arabia and Jabeur, an Arab sports hero, qualifies for the top-eight event and gets to compete in Riyadh, there’s no telling how many young girls in Saudi Arabia she can engage with and positively influence.

A few years ago, it seemed unthinkable the Arab world would have a woman ranked No 2 or a Grand Slam finalist or a qualifier for the WTA Finals. Jabeur has somehow normalised all this by continuing to excel on the global stage, and we’re seeing someone like Egypt’s Mayar Sherif now trying to follow in the Tunisian’s footsteps and rising to a career-high No 31.

Women’s sport in the Mena region can thrive if given the chance to. We just have to let it.

Updated: September 03, 2023, 5:34 AM